The Ruble’s Ruin

Does anyone remember learning in history class about the economy of the Weimar Republic — the ill-fated government of Germany between World War I and the ascendance of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party?  It experienced hyperinflation and financial calamity, and we read about Germans needing wheelbarrows of cash to buy even a loaf of bread.

We think that couldn’t happen anymore in the modern world — but it can.  In fact, it is happening right now in Russia, as a Fortune article reports.  Some people think that Russia’s currency, the ruble, is in a state of irretrievable collapse; its value against other currencies, like the dollar, is plummeting and even draconian increases in Russian interest rates might not stem the tide.

The reason is oil.  It’s Russia’s one big marketable commodity and the bedrock of their  economy.  The price of oil has been falling for months, which has made investors nervous about how Russian companies are going to pay off their debts given the lack of incoming cash.  So, the ruble trades lower, and the ability of Russian companies to pay off debts calculated in foreign currencies becomes harder and harder — which makes defaults even more likely.  By one calculation, the amount of rubles Russian companies need to pay off foreign debt obligations has increased by 90% just since the start of November.

How is Vladimir Putin going to deal with this crisis?  You might be tempted to say this disaster couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, but let’s resist the impulse to enjoy some schadenfreude.  Putin is adventurous as it is, and you have to wonder whether a destabilizing currency failure is going to make him even more likely to wave his big stick to try to distract from his other problems.  And if Russian companies start defaulting on the more than $670 billion they owe, what is that going to do for the world economy?

Keep an eye out for the wheelbarrows.

The Dark Underbelly Of The Elf On A Shelf

Millions of American households with young children have an “elf on a shelf.”  As explained to me — because the elf didn’t become popular until well after Richard and Russell were out of their childhood years — the elf is a little figure that changes its position from time to time and moves from room to room, supposedly so he can keep an eye on things and report back to Santa Claus on whether the kids of the family are being naughty or nice.

Now a Canadian professor contends that there is more to the “elf on a shelf” than meets the eye.  Rather than an innocent yet tangible expression of the power of belief in Santa Claus, she contends that the “elf on a shelf” conditions children to uncritically accept existing power structures and norms and to get used to lack of privacy and being spied upon.

So . . . even if that questionable theory is true, what’s wrong with that?  Speaking as a parent, I wanted our kids to accept the existing power structure — namely, that Kish and I got to call the tune in the Webner household — and to think that if they were doing something bad, it would be discovered and reported.  Fortunately, our kids were little angels at all times.

Of course, the combination of Christmas and spying goes back to well before the “elf on a shelf” first made his appearance.  Santa Claus, of course, knows if you’ve been naughty or nice — so he’s not only spying on your kids, but he’s also judging them.  If we’re worried about the impact of naughty/nice spying on children’s psyches, maybe we also should ask what gives Santa the right to judge our kids?  Obviously, a guy who smokes a pipe, wears real furs, and has a gut that shakes “like a bowl full of jelly” when he laughs is not living a perfect, healthy, blameless lifestyle, so why should he be deciding whether a little kid is abiding by accepted societal norms?

Maybe there’s a deep, dark underbelly here — or maybe professors at the University of Toronto Institute of Technology need to relax and realize that kids trying desperately to control their inner demons for a few weeks each December in order to maximize their presents is part of the magic of the holiday season.